Sep 19 2022

Follow Up on AI Art

One of the things I enjoy about writing this blog is that it is a conversation. My essay is often just the opening salvo in what turns into an interesting exchange on the topic, and I often learn new facts, gain deeper insight, and if nothing else get better at communicating my ideas. This is why I have a high tolerance for commenters with very different views. I do get rid of the worst trolls that I find are destructive to the conversation, but as my regular commenters know, I set a pretty high bar. I do recommend everyone try to engage meaningfully with other commenters and not just try to “win” with snark and insults. If we all agreed here, the comments would be pretty boring.

Sometimes, however, I feel like I have enough to say in response to the comments that a follow up post is warranted. The conversation about AI art is one of those times, partly because the conversation focused on elements of my post that I feel were ancillary. My post was not really about art. It was about how we respond to disruptive technology, and one way in which some technologies are disruptive. Specifically some technologies automate the technical aspects of creation, rendering obsolete (or at least to a much diminished role) entire sets of skills. My three examples were woodworking, photography, and the recent AI algorithms that can generate art.

In response some commenters noted that crafting a chair from wood is not art. Unfortunately this lead to a discussion about “what is art”, which is interesting, but entirely misses the point. That was not the analogy, and crafting furniture does not have to be art for my analogy to hold. The point was, that a profession of skilled artisans was essentially rendered obsolete by modern technology. Sure, there are people who keep this craft alive, and there is a high-end market for hand-crafted items. But the industry has fundamentally changed. A 19th century woodworker would have a hard time finding employment outside a historical village.

For photography, the technical skill required in order to be an amateur or even profession photographer (depending on exactly what this means) has been lowered by automation. The fact that fine art photographers would still control the process entirely manually is completely besides the point. You can function as a wedding photographer, let’s say, without the technical skill that would have been absolutely necessary thirty years ago. Of course, many professional photographers still have a lot of this same skill and choose to use it, but it is slowly being displaced by computer chips doing the technical heavy lifting. Further, computer automation has provided new tools to photographers, like the ability to take high dynamic range photos. Also, digital photos are much easier to manipulate in post production, with much more powerful tools. Modern cameras have shifted the skills used by photographers, and to some extent have lowered the bar for entry, allowing amateur enthusiasts to much more easily take technically competent pictures.

What about the AI art programs? Since I wrote that article I have spent the past week using the Midjourney application that was used by the artist who won the digital art competition. I have a much better feel for what it can and cannot do. What I wrote last week still holds, and I will reproduce it here because I also think a lot of commenters missed this:

Also, I think there will always be a market for hand-made art. This won’t have much of an effect on high-end art, other than creating a new category of AI assisted art. It will dramatically affect the way we mass-produce art. If a company or person needs a logo, or a T-shirt design, or even illustration for a graphic novel, they can source their art from AI without having to pay an artist.

I think some of the confusion in the comments was driven by the definition of “art”, with at least one commenter equating it with fine art. I don’t want to get sucked into another conversation about what is art, but I will just say I was using the term colloquially, to refer to the entire spectrum – even things the commenter explicitly said were not art (like collectables). I pretty much laid it out above – this application is actually pretty good if you need a bespoke piece of “art” for personal use. If you want a picture for your screen background, to use on your website, even to hang on the wall or print on a T-shirt, this application can be fairly powerful. Is it creating “real art”? At this point I would say, mostly no.

But – this is another tool, and can be used by a real artist as part of their work. In fact one commenter linked to an artist doing just that.  The AI generative process is a new artistic tool that can be used by digital artists, and may lead to a new category of digital art. This is similar to digital photographers using digital tools to create photos not possible with pre-digital technology.

For the casual user, it can also be a lot of fun. It essentially can give the casual user the ability to explore aspects of their creativity without first having to master a technical skill. Does this mean it isn’t real art? I will let the experts debate that – but it is entirely besides my point. Also, there is a new skill set necessary to use this new tool. Sure, you can type any random words into the prompt and get something interesting out. But there is some technical skill necessary in knowing how to craft a useful prompt, there are even a few computer codes that can directly modify the results. If you want to produce a really good result, then you will need to spend some time now only honing your skill with the application, but in getting the results you want. There is a massive random element to the output, and you may have to go through a lot of duds before you get something useful.

Using the program well can actually be a lot of work, and someone with skill can create a much better outcome than someone without that skill. I would not be surprised if professional artists master the software in order to make it part of the services they can provide. And again this can lead to a new class of artists.

I will also say, after using the application, that it is not close to the point that it can replace actual technical artists. But it is not hard to imagine, with just some incremental advances, that it will be able to at some point (probably in the not-too-distant future). Once it gets to the point that the user essentially has complete control over the resulting image then this will evolve into, essentially, a really powerful tool for creating digital art, perhaps eclipsing all older tools.

But I want to emphasize – these tools do not replace artists. They simply shift the tools that artists (at whatever level) use to create their art, replacing some older skills with newer ones. And actually, “replace” is probably not the right word. New technologies often do not replace older technologies – they just exist side-by-side filling different niches. That is almost certainly what will happen here. This will create new categories of art, and not replace older ones that will likely have vigorous persistence.


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